Since 2012, with the creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, the U.S. government has provided some 800,000 teens and young adults across America who were brought illegally into the country as children with a route to gain temporary citizenship to stay in the country to work or attend school.
In September, President Trump rescinded the program. The government quit accepting new applications, and refused renewals for existing beneficiaries on Oct. 5, starting the two-year countdown clock for those living out the remainder of their benefits.
While a federal judge in California did obtain a preliminary injunction against the administration, which keeps current standards for recipients in place and prevents the government from denying DACA renewals while the situation is under review, Trump gave Congress a six-month timeframe in which to take action to restore the program. That deadline is fast approaching on March 5.
Today, nearly 690,000 of these immigrants remain actively enrolled in the program, and could face deportation when their permits expire.
The Appalachian South is home to six of the 10 states with the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the country. Especially in struggling economies faced with rapidly-fleeing white, non-Hispanic workforces, Hispanic families of mixed immigration statuses are sustaining Appalachian communities. Small liberal-arts colleges are similarly inextricably married to eager immigrant students looking to succeed.
If these groups of people are deported wholesale, it’s not just families and local communities that will feel the change: already-struggling Appalachia as a whole will be left to pick up the pieces.
With the launch of this series, 100 Days in Appalachia is exploring the lives of these individuals, the communities in which they live, and the way their lives influence our region overall.
Here, we meet Lena Martinez. She’s one of about 100,000 DACA recipients in Appalachia. Her status expires in January of next year, unless Congress creates a pathway to legalizing DACA recipients before the fast-approaching deadline. Over the next several days, our three-part series provides an intimate glimpse into the nuanced, complicated, uniquely Appalachian life she and her family lead in Hickory, North Carolina.
Lovey Cooper (@loveycooper) is a contributing editor with 100 Days in Appalachia, and reports on the intersection of politics and culture.
Introduction: Meet the Martinez Family
The morning of Tuesday, Sept. 5, Lena Martinez sat at the dining room table in her family’s tidy apartment in Hickory, North Carolina, showing scant interest in her breakfast. Although she had a natural sciences quiz to get to in less than two hours at nearby Lenoir-Rhyne University, she sat transfixed by the TV in the adjoining living room, watching with her mother, Josefina.
Univision news reporters were interviewing Hispanic families like the Martinezes. A mother told a reporter, “All I ever wanted is what’s best for my children.” She started to cry. Lena and Josefina caught each other’s gaze, and also cried. President Trump had just announced that he would end DACA, the 6-year-old program that granted temporary legal immigration status to more than 800,000 people brought to the U.S. as children — including permission to work, and to drive.
Lena was among those 800,000-plus “Dreamers,” and one of an estimated 27,000-plus DACA recipients in North Carolina. Her Mexican parents crossed the border with her in 1996, before she could even walk. Now 21, she had just launched her last year of studies at Lenoir-Rhyne, a private liberal arts college less than three miles from the modest apartment her family calls home in her hometown of Hickory, a town of 40,000 an hour’s drive northwest of Charlotte.
When Lena walks across the stage at Lenoir-Rhyne to receive her baccalaureate diploma on May 17 this year, her achievement will become another data point in an argument that’s been waged for more than a decade, in Congress and in living rooms across this country.
Timothy Pratt (@TimothyJPratt) is a journalist based in the Atlanta area. He has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, and many other publications.
All photos by Jesse Pratt Lopez.